Gutting Protections in a Marine Sanctuary: Trump and Zinke Take Aim at Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument

December 13, 2018 | 8:58 am
Photo: Derrick Jackson
Derrick Z. Jackson

With congregations of cetaceans and fish rarely seen and a wealth of corals and critters new to science, it is unconscionable for President Trump to reopen the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument to commercial fishing.

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, as established by President Obama in 2016.

The Canyons and Seamounts, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, is one of three watery US national monuments and it has been recommended for plunder by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. (The other two are in the Pacific—Rose Atoll and Remote Pacific Islands.) All three monuments are currently protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act signed by President Teddy Roosevelt to stem the looting and vandalism of indigenous artifacts and archaeological sites during America’s westward expansion.

Despite their vast differences on issues of science and the environment, both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama saw fit to use the Antiquities Act to protect some of the most rich, rare, and undisturbed oceanic ecosystems on Earth.

In creating Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands in 2009, Bush called them “ideal laboratories for scientific research.” When christening the Canyons and Seamounts in 2016, where 24 coral species and three species of fish have been seen for the first time in the North Atlantic, Obama said it would make possible “new discoveries and improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems.”

Political vandalism

In contrast, the Trump administration is choosing to play the role of vandal and looter. On land, Trump issued an executive order last year that removed massive portions of land from the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, paving the way for oil and gas drilling to advance on these sacred natural landscapes. Both of these reductions, discussed in the new UCS report Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, are being fought in the courts by Native Americans and environmentalists claiming that coal mining and oil and gas exploration will exacerbate pollution, artifact loss, and global warming emissions.

At sea, the gutting of protections willfully ignores scientific warnings that high-tech fishing fleets are vacuuming fish out of the ocean to an unprecedented extent and destroying habitat in the process. A study this year in the journal Science found that industrial-scale fishing now operates in more than half, and perhaps up to three-quarters of the globe’s oceans. That has grave implications as the global numbers have plummeted from 90 percent of fish stocks being harvested sustainably in 1974 to just 66.9 percent of the stocks being sustainably managed in 2015, and upwards of a third of the world’s fish now reportedly being caught illegally.

New England is a sobering part of that picture as prized species like cod have been driven to commercial collapse and other species have been subject to stringent catch regulations. Even with management, climate change is moving seafood such as lobster and herring northward and deeper. That makes it even more important to preserve pristine sites to understand the unprecedented changes wrought by humans.

Overblown claims

In attacking the national monument, the administration is ignoring the science and abetting falsehoods spread by a fishing industry desperate to own every teardrop of ocean. The Canyons and Seamounts monument comprises two segments covering 4,913 square miles—infinitesimal in oceanic terms. It accounts for only just one  tenth of one percent of all US waters now sanctioned for fishing and just 1.5 percent of such waters in the Atlantic, according the New England Aquarium and the Mystic Aquarium.

Because of its distance from mainland ports and its topography, with canyons as deep as the Grand Canyon and undersea mountains rising 7,000 feet from the seafloor, commercial fishing in the Canyons and Seamounts monument has thus far has been limited. A small amount of red crab and lobster fishing has been grandfathered until 2023.

But the fishing industry, desperate to keep all water open for future exploitation, bitterly fought the creation of the monument. Its lobbying succeeded in shrinking the monument from an originally-proposed 6,000 square miles and eliminating permanent protection for a pristine kelp forest that is a nursery for the cod that the fishing industry keep wishing would come back. Despite overblown claims, such as those from the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation that the monument “could sink commercial fishing in New England,” in the region’s $1.3 billion-a-year fishing industry, fish from the Canyons and Seamounts monument account for just $1.3 million dollars, according to NOAA data.

Photo: Derrick Jackson

Science sidelined 

In fact, the amount of fishing in the monument is so small, the administration tried to hide that fact in making the case to re-open the sanctuary. In July, the Washington Post reported that, in the review President Trump ordered of 27 national monuments, officials at the Department of Interior cooked the books and purposely ignored the benefits of the national monuments for tourism and science while exaggerating the potential for mineral, fossil fuel and timber extraction.

In the case of the Canyons and Seamounts monument, the administration was caught between a rock and no hard evidence pointing to the site’s commercial value. Randal Bowman, a special assistant at the Department of Interior, even recommended in an email that the review of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts exclude all mention of impacts on commercial fishing. In his memo, Bowman deleted the fact that just four of 186 vessels fishing in the area drew more than 25 percent of their annual income from the resource. The vast majority, 123 vessels, drew five percent or less of their annual revenue from the territory now protected as a national monument.

Bowman concluded that the data on the paucity of fishing at the site “undercut the case” that the designation of the national monument was harmful to the industry.

Ominous signs

Bowman’s concerns do not rule out the potential for future harm, however, especially if the fishing industry runs out of other areas or if technology keeps evolving to find fish even more efficiently in the abyss. Ester Quintana, lead mammal marine scientist for the New England Aquarium and an expert in aerial surveys, says she sees plenty of ominous signs of what will happen if the monument is reopened for industrial-scale fishing.

She has seen plenty of fishing gear at the edges of the monument and fishing vessels skirting its edges. “It’s clear the fishermen are aware of the boundaries and are pushing the limits,” she said. “What this suggests to me that if those boundaries, were reopened, those fishermen would be more active.”

It’s easy to understand why boundaries are getting pushed.  The monument is a menagerie. An April aerial survey by the New England Aquarium counted 74 pilot, beaked, or sperm whales and more than 250 dolphins of three different species. In a September aerial survey, researchers spotted more than 600 large animals in just four hours. There was a “superpod” of about 250 common dolphins, a huge ocean sunfish, a giant oceanic manta ray more frequently spotted hundreds of miles to the south and a species of rarely-seen beaked whale that breaths very briefly at the surface, then dives as much as nearly 10,000 feet into the abyss to feed.

Scott Kraus, chief scientist for marine mammal conservation at the New England Aquarium noted, “Large squids usually don’t come to the surface in daylight. But we’ve seen them being chased by dolphins. The monument is like a fast-food restaurant for dolphins.”

Combine those sightings with 73 recorded species of corals and, as Peter Auster, senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium and emeritus professor of marine science at the University of Connecticut, proclaims, “It’s like a walk in a trail in a new forest that you’ve never been in. Except that instead of trees, it’s the corals that the other animals use.”

Brian Benedict, interim superintendent of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which has major jurisdiction over boat traffic over the Canyons, said that such places serve as critical reference points from which to judge the health of other parts of the ocean. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says a coral reef can take up to 10,000 years to form and barrier reefs and atolls can take from 100,000 years to 30 million years to form.

As Benedict notes, in the two years since the monument’s creation, commercial fishing companies have respected the new borders. He said one major company rerouted a proposed trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cable rather than risk the “bad optics” of laying it through the monument, even though it was possible under its regulations to get a permit for it. “It’s not every day that you get to protect an environment in the North Atlantic with seabirds on top and corals at the bottom,” Benedict said. “Most people seem to get it.”

Except the Trump administration.

Outlook uncertain

The fate of the ocean monuments is unclear. A federal court in October ruled against the fishing industry’s claim that Obama illegally created the monument and made it too large. But the industry plans to appeal, and there are other voices in the administration pushing to exploit the monuments.

In July, the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that NOAA’s acting administrator, Tim Gallaudet, made a controversial presentation, suggesting that the agency drop from its mission statement the desire to “understand and predict changes in climate.” In that presentation, Gallaudet also suggested that fishing in national monuments could reduce America’s so-called “seafood deficit” of importing 90 percent of the seafood it consumes.

The argument makes scientists like Quintana all the more incredulous. Many studies show that protected marine areas benefit the fishing industry as their healthy biomass radiates outward. Other animals benefit tourism. Only over the last five years has it been discovered that puffins, a bird whose restoration spawned a thriving summer bird-watching boat tour industry around islands off the coast of Maine, feed in and around the monument in late winter.

“With all the biodiversity, it doesn’t make sense why you would not want this to be protected,” Quintana said. “Why are we being forced to fight over such a small part of the ocean? Leave it the way it is. We don’t need to be this greedy.”

Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the top environmental groups that advocated for the creation of the Canyons and Seamounts, said it should be clear that political responsibility for the monument goes well beyond the Trump administration. Fearing the wrath of fishermen at the polls, New England’s generally liberal congressional delegation and governors have long shied away from fully protecting the ocean ecosystem to the point of sometimes even joining the fishing industry in railing against NOAA science in calculating catch limits.

This is despite the painfully obvious fact that the fleet is highly diminished from a quarter century ago with the depletion of stocks. Brooks said the monument is one of few places in New England waters where, “you see the whole food chain at the surface.” The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument is such a link in the food chain; we should not allow it to be broken.

About the author

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.